The Cherry Hill Arts & Music Waterfront festival is one example of a community coming together to reclaim a neighborhood once devastated by crime
EZE JACKSON: Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. Each has its own history, architecture, traditions, and challenges.
Cherry Hill is located in the southern part of Baltimore City. When you talk to people from Cherry Hill, they’ll tell you that in the ’80s and ’90s Cherry Hill was notorious for its crime and drug traffic. In 2013 a federal investigation led to the arrest of three dozen rival gang members. By 2016, authorities were saying the neighborhood had seen crime go down drastically. Today it is the home of two 21st century schools, which are new and renovated schools being built throughout the city. The schools are meant to not only prepare students for college and careers, but to serve as a hub with resources to support the surrounding community.
How bad was it growing up?
MICHAEL BATTLE: Significantly bad. So now we have different programs in place out here to reduce the shootings and homicides.
Since they’ve been in the community shootings have, and homicides went down 50 percent.
FANON HILL: Art serves as a critical reference point in terms of providing a point of- or for remembrance. Also providing an opportunity for young people to be initiated into the culture that exists in Cherry Hill.
EZE JACKSON: This year, Cherry Hill held its second annual Cherry Hill Arts and Music waterfront festival; a lineup of mostly Cherry Hill natives. The festival aims to celebrate the beauty of this historic Baltimore neighborhood.
Fanon Hill is the founder of the Youth Resiliency Institute, one of the organizations behind the festival. Fusion Partnerships is an organization working to ensure Baltimore residents have equitable access to resources and opportunities.
FANON HILL: You look around Baltimore and you have certain communities that have multiple festivals every year. When we did our research we realized that in communities like Cherry Hill, you know, there were festivals in the past, art-based programs in the past; you know, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. Amazing artists have come out of Cherry Hill. But we looked at where the funding was going, and we looked at the programming that existed in Cherry Hill, and we saw a void. The culture of Cherry Hill is different than the culture of Harlem Avenue with Reverend Willy Ray. You know, you feel all the different energy, a different vibration. And so artistry allows you to represent, to celebrate your community with that homegrown vibration without anyone saying that’s wrong, that’s wrong. Do it this way, do it that way. No, we do it our way.
EZE JACKSON: Longtime resident Shirley Folks says it’s the work that people like Fanon and organizations like Safe Streets have been able to do to bring back a sense of community that was once taken away by gun violence and drugs.
SHIRLEY FOLKS: Today it’s getting better. It’s slower, but it’s getting better. And more of the community is putting in to help make it matter. That’s helped tremendously. And we try to support them, and go to their events, and donate when we have to, and just be a part of it. To let people know we support them, so that they’re not alone. And we know with them we’re not alone.
EZE JACKSON: Warren Williams Sr is the site director of Safe Streets Cherry Hill. Safe Streets works to be a liaison between the community and those who are involved in illegal activity.
WARREN WILLIAMS SR: OK. When I first came to Cherry Hill in 1969, the first thing I witnessed out of my window was someone getting killed on Seagull Avenue. So that kind of like, I would say traumatized me, and that sat in my mind for a while. And over the years we’ve seen how violence escalated. You’re also seeing how we had territorial problems in the Cherry Hill area. But then, as we see today, you know, since the Safe Streets program been implemented in Cherry Hill, you know, we have seen a reduction in shooting and homicides now over 50 percent.
One thing I’ve got to say about Safe Streets, you’ve got a Safe Street program where you got credible messengers, people that did that, was on the wrong side of the law, all of a sudden they’re part of the solution instead of the problem. What happens is when you take the Safe Streets program, implement it in a community, the community got to buy in to the Safe Street program. When the community buys in, now they’re part of the Safe Streets program in partnership. That’s how we do it out here in Cherry Hill, or any Safe Streets site. It’s a collaboration of partnerships, merchants, schools, churches. Everybody got to be on board to make this work and to be effective.
EZE JACKSON: Cherry Hill has always been predominantly black. Originally developed as a place for African-American veterans returning from World War II and the Korean War, it’s one of the newer areas developed in Baltimore’s history. The first group of houses were built in 1948. The Cherry Hill housing project is one of the most densely populated projects in the country, with 1281 affordable housing units.
Michael Battle is the founder of Restoring Inner City Hope, or RICH Project. For the past seven years, the program has held an annual block party to showcase local talent and family activities, and host organizations who provide resources, from job placements, to backpacks and school supplies, to trauma and grief counseling.
MICHAEL BATTLE: So, growing up in Cherry Hill we had a lot of different, different programs that was open, things for the kids to do. So right now, as of right now, there’s no rec centers out here, there’s nothing, pretty much, for the kids to do. We used to have marching bands, a multipurpose center, a lot of different things was open out here. Now it’s pretty much nothing.
So our slogan is to be light in dark places. So we come out here and just give different events. Strength-building community events, providing valuable resources for the community, and things for kids to do in a safe environment, they can be children. So that’s what we do.
EZE JACKSON: Both Warren and Michael talk about the importance of partnering with local schools, and bringing as many different groups to the table as possible. Fanon says there are still challenges, but through the arts and continued community building, Cherry Hill will be the place to be.
FANON HILL: Well, you know, everything’s stemming from, you know, policy from the past. You know, Cherry Hill during the ’40s, as result of redlining, black folk, our mothers, our fathers, our great grandparents, were forced to a polluted peninsula that is now known as Cherry Hill. And every institution that was built in Cherry Hill was built by black folk. The schools, the faith-based institutions, the businesses, so on and so forth.
And so partnerships are very key. And so with Fusion Partnerships, us understanding that we wanted to be sure that a percentage of whatever grant dollars we got or get go back into the pot for community members, whether in Cherry Hill or other places in Baltimore City, to do important work that needs to be done. And so partnerships are absolutely critical. And you know, fiscal sponsorship vis a vis Fusion Partnership Inc, we see that as a form of social justice.
EZE JACKSON: For The Real News Network, with Babatunde Ogunfolaju, I’m Eze Jackson.